(Continued from page 1)

Peter’s passion for service—and frustration with the lack of it—is obvious before we leave the hotel. The bellman won’t take his valet ticket and instead points us back inside to a desk for help. “Thank you for your service,” he mutters under his breath as we walk back inside the hotel. After getting the car, we drive 60 miles west to The Chef’s Garden in Huron, following the other four in their rental. Karpinski keenly watches as the suburban cities turn to more rural towns the farther we get from Cleveland—similar, he says, to the area near Auburn, NY, where he grew up.

The guys know all about Farmer Lee Jones’ family farm, but this is their first visit. Some of their restaurants, including Mercat, a Chicago partnership with Iron Chef Jose Garces, are currently customers. This is obvious when Karpinski notices an invoice and order being prepared for Mercat as Farmer Lee leads us through the room where orders are being packaged.

“Look at this,” shouts Peter, who’s holding up the sheet of paper dangling from a shelf. “How cool is that?” He doesn’t miss a chance for some fun, writing a note on the packaging slip to surprise his team in Chicago.

As we tour the farm, the affable Farmer Lee greets nearly every employee by name, making small talk with most. We’re already behind schedule, and this is our first stop of the day, but Farmer Lee is now introducing himself to a new employee who’s recently started.

Farmer Lee’s passion for the business and attention to detail are obvious, from food safety to his employees to the unique products he’s bringing to life, and they are clearly noticed by the Sage team. As the others carry two large goody boxes of samples back to their car, David Marsh slows his walk and we fall a little behind. “This place is impressive,” he says. “We like to align ourselves with similar-type companies that share the same philosophies.”

While Farmer Lee may have 300 acres, a vast staff and a high-profile list of clients, Chef’s Garden is very much a family-owned business that fits the farm-to-table mode Sage is looking for, albeit on a larger scale than most. The quality it provides does come with a price, but Peter says corporate chef Michael Carr-Turnbough is a master at training the kitchens to use just the right amount of product to maximize flavor and value. And for every Chef’s Garden, there are other off-the-radar and less expensive producers Sage finds and partners with to help offset the cost of the more expensive ones.

It’s now almost noon, and we’re a good hour behind schedule. Instead of heading south to a farm in Wooster as planned, we stop at a local burger joint in neighboring Sandusky. The guys dissect the menu and then order most of it. “When you eat with us, we order half the menu,” says Michael, whom the others call “chef.” He’s also the one who seems to be doing the most “research.”

The topic of conversation is briefly The Chef’s Garden, but it’s not about the tiny yellow popcorn shoots we sampled that taste just like Ohio’s amazing sweet corn, or the wasabi mustard green that had quite a kick. It’s about Farmer Lee, and how he knows and greets each employee by name.

The focus then turns to our server, who’s using her iPhone to take and log our orders. “It’s too slow,” she says when asked how it works. “Scrolling from page to page is a pain.” They debate the pros and cons of this technology, and Peter is clearly intrigued with the potential efficiencies it might offer.